Laguna Castle is on view at the Night Gallery through March 18, 2023
Night Gallery’s latest exhibition is born of a surprising lineage. Hayley Barker was invited by artist and photographer Martin Fox to participate in a brief residency at Laguna Castle – also the title of the exhibition. The “castle” is an apartment that was home to Isa-Kae Meksin for over 60 years. Meksin, a Ukrainian immigrant, was a robustly active citizen of the Echo Park Community. She went to Hunter College, where she was a secretary for the esteemed historian C.L.R. James. She contributed to initiatives that battled discriminatory legislation against the LGBT+ community and was involved in a range of LA-based activism. The aesthetic complement to her activism was the work on her apartment garden. Laguna Castle, despite its name, is an ordinary place in a neighborhood that grew through many phases in her lifetime. Meksin’s legacy provides the individual lens for Barker’s paintings to put a microscope on the ordinary. The exhibition resists the traditional romanticism of nature painting to celebrate the mundane crevices of nonhuman life that bustles among LA’s urban spaces. Barker’s work reminds me of one of my favorite essays: Thirteen ways of Seeing Nature in LA by Jenny Price. Price argues that the state of nature writing is intertwined with the environmental crisis. She suggests that nature writers are focusing on the wrong things, making the wrong points or, as she puts it, “Thoreau really, really needs to get on the bus.” Her analysis suggests LA as the best place to look at nature because it helps us understand how culture collaborates with nature, and how myths and narratives shape meaning in our world. She insists on following the minute nature trails of the products we use, the air we breathe, and the plants we brush past on the sidewalk. With this lens, boundaries between nature and culture are collapsed to deepen our understanding of how they exist in tandem. Meksin’s home and Barker’s paintings take up Price’s literary project with paint and space, placing mediums in solidarity.
The exhibition complements the Andy Woll exhibition that the Night Gallery displayed just a few months ago. In Green Earth, Woll sought to refigure nature painting. That exhibition was interested in form and materiality, blending art history and mountain faces. Barker, however, shrinks her scope. The legacy of Meksin’s life and her garden anchors Barker in the local mythology of Echo Park’s natural surroundings. Barker’s oils are layered but lush, granting the works a rural quality by peeling away cityscapes to reveal the natural between the concrete. She rejects the complicated, breathtaking transcendentalism of 19th century nature painting. Think of the famous painting depicting Manifest Destiny inspiring Westward expansion across the mystical plains of America. She also only briefly gives credence to the traditional still life form, adding layers to it by taking the canvas outdoors. Barker is interested in how plant life and human life are woven together, how plant space and built space grow into each other. Landscapes are traded for pockets of space and mythical totality is rejected in favor of fragmented intrigue.
By Martin’s Porch takes a snapshot of a space just outside the apartment doors. The botanical assemblage is depicted with vivid color, highlighting the range of plants commonly spotted around Southern California. The image, without human elements, might transport viewers to a natural space. Pots and a hose, however, anchor down the ordinary here. The vinelike hose is a usual citizen of this environment, connecting the plants to the unseen apartment that shares the land. The hose captures a moment in time after the plants have been tended by the gardener. The green and white rubber tube has yet to be wrapped up and stored away. One can imagine the gardener milling about, observing leaves and petals, or sitting idly with a book under the umbrella that peeks into the painting from the right side of the canvas.
Other pieces take us on a stroll. The Shade Path winds through a densely wooded area, ending at a wooden structure, perhaps a storage cabin. A small cat lays in the corner, sharing the space with residents and whatever wildlife might pass through. The stroll winds down a sidewalk past a Big Cactus. The cactus is cast in an evening glow, with the moon perfectly shining through an opening in the surrounding trees. Two fences cut through the cactus – one metal and one wood. There is a mystical glow to the painting that is consistent with the rest of the exhibition, but it takes on a melancholy feel, presenting a counter point to the garden hose. The fences evoke the segmentation and encroachment that city spaces bring with development. The cactus almost seems to be blocked from natural progressions of growth in favor of inconsistent human development. Cacti like these populate anthropocentric spaces like yards, sidewalks, and the brims of roads and freeways. The darker tone of the painting reminds us of the increasingly mediated – often encroaching – nature of human interactions with natural space and nonhuman life.
Barker takes her brush inside Laguna Castle, shifting this mediation to enclosed spaces. Isa’s Window, grants viewers a more intimate glimpse of what it was like to gaze outside from the perspective of the longtime occupant of the apartment. In isolation, the painting might allude to a mysterious “outside,” framed by the fracturing human obstruction of the window. The window might stand in as the barrier between the culture that is inside and the nature that is outside. However, in the context of the exhibition, that outside nature peeks in, waiting for the apartment inhabitant to come back outside for a daily interaction. That we look from Isa’s point of view – a steward of nonhuman life – helps the painting contrast the lonely cactus that has been left untended along a sidewalk.
The inside paintings cement the fact that Laguna Castle is as much an exhibition about the human as it is about nature. Isa’s Necklaces, and Isa’s Wall of Photographs, provide a brief ephemeral glimpse into the life of a person who was intimately wedded to a locality. The wall of photographs carries a particular valence of nostalgia, collecting an assemblage of the people and landscapes that populated Meksin’s long life as a citizen and contributor to Echo Park. The frame, like each of the plant-centric paintings, is depicted with enough detail to distinguish everyone in the assemblage. It is also, stylistically, painted with a pastel suppleness that gives it a sort of folk aura. That is perhaps Barker’s other major contribution along with her collapsing the boundaries of nature and human. The transcendentalism of traditional landscape and nature painting is absent, but there remains a sense of meditative, ordinary wonder. The paintings in this exhibition project snapshots of small moments that exist all throughout Los Angeles, drawing our attention back to the potentiality of the everyday. Barker’s works are welcoming. They draw the eye with the ability to remind us of the value of slower engagements with the world.